Maisie Broadhead: Peepers
The Royal Pavilion, Brighton
25 October 2014 – 1 March 2015
by ANNA McNAY
“His glory is forgotten, and his vices exaggerated.” – Princess Dorothea von Lieven, wife of the Russian ambassador to England, talking about her friend, George IV
Although holding a masters in jewellery from the Royal College of Art, it is for her photography that Maisie Broadhead (b1980) has become increasingly recognised and valued over the past few years. Drawing inspiration from Old Masters, she reworks well-known paintings, exploring their narratives, often with a contemporary twist. In 2012, her work was included in the National Gallery’s blockbuster show Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present. Her latest project, Peepers (2014), is currently on display in the sumptuous Music Room at Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, as the winner of Pavilion Contemporary 3. A larger-than-life photographic installation, the commission is playful, beautiful, thought provoking and tinged with sadness as the story of George IV (1762-1830), the prince responsible for the building of the extravagant pavilion, is revealed. Faces of people dressed in full 18th-century regalia press up close against the glass, gazing at visitors as they wander about. Women whisper, an older man looks on disapprovingly, a child stares nonchalantly. In Peepers, the gaze of the visitor is turned back on itself.
Anna McNay: Can you start by telling me a bit about Pavilion Contemporary 3 and how you came to be commissioned?
Maisie Broadhead: I was invited to put in a proposal for Pavilion Contemporary 3 last Christmas. It was a very open brief. After two visits to the Royal Pavilion in January, I was quite clear what I wanted to do. I did a tour on my own and another with David [Beevers], the keeper. What struck a chord with me most was the extravagance of George IV’s life as a younger man. He was very happy to show off. He was happy generally. He was in a relationship he was happy in. Then, when he realised he’d spent too much and was told that, to have his debts written off, he had to marry someone more legitimate and produce an heir, he began to realise his lifestyle wasn’t quite what his father would have wanted. I found those dynamics very interesting. He did marry someone “suitable” [Princess Caroline of Brunswick in 1795], though he didn’t want to and soon left her. Then, later on, their daughter died in childbirth. There was a sense of personal tragedy and a whole series of human emotions. The cartoons drawn to depict him around this time were quite brutal, portraying him as really rather a horrible creature. He was scrutinised to the point where he eventually became quite reclusive. I guess I was interested in this and why someone would spend so much money having a place like this built, wanting to show it off, and then, by the time it was built, not want to show it off at all.
AMc: Had you worked on this scale before?
MB: No, and it was fun being able to propose something bigger than usual. There was a slightly larger budget, so it was the first time I felt able to have a go at something like that. But, also, the size of the print began to really matter to me. I wanted to scale the people up so that the gaze felt more intense. Some of the characters – certainly the older man – are trying to pick up on the details of some of George IV’s more personal relationships and I wanted to reflect and recreate the sense of scrutiny he must have felt from them.
I knew initially that I wanted characters outside looking in, to try to dwarf this epic building and create a feeling of being miniature, which is my interpretation of how George IV might have felt in that scrutinised, depressed state. But this threw up technical issues because, obviously, these windows are pretty large and I wasn’t allowed to touch the curtains or walls. There’s nowhere to hang anything in this building: I think there’s only one portrait hanging near the entrance. In the end, we used existing fixtures for some conservation blinds. These windows were really the only blank canvases in the building.
In terms of shooting, once I’d established the characters and who I wanted to loosely base them on, I had to buy a really large piece of glass, because I wanted to establish this sense of people pushing up against the glass to look in. I got props and costumes from the National Theatre and wigs from a couple of wig-makers in London and set it all up in my studio. My research was done through books, films and looking at drawings and paintings, and trying to get a sense of the time and how the court would have looked. We shot it all over a couple of days and then it took a good few months to work it all out because I shot everybody individually. For this size, I couldn’t get a camera to take a resolution high enough to take everybody together. I had to shoot each window frame at a time. While one model was getting hair and makeup done, another was being shot. The two ladies were done together, though, because they are touching each other. I used a medium-format camera digitally and did a lot of work afterwards. We shot in the studio and then the background was done on a separate day.
I probably took 150 pictures of each character, trying out different stages of accentuation and exaggeration of expression. If you shove a camera in someone’s face, most people will get very awkward, so I like to take lots and lots of pictures, to the point where someone starts to feel comfortable, where they’ve got used to the camera being there, are relaxed, are maybe having a conversation and are no longer frozen-faced.
I started out by making models, but then realised it was much easier to take the photographs and use Photoshop afterwards. There were the logistics of trying to make it look as if they all married up, were all the right size and proportion, and all set into the landscape, not just floating characters. I had to work with all the pictures together in one file, and then take them out and deal with them individually as well.
AMc: So now they are installed in front of the huge windows here in the Music Room. How are they fixed? Are they backlit?
MB: Yes, because otherwise on a day like today they would be completely dark. The prints are mounted on units, which have been fixed into the window frames. The units have got energy strips down the back. We’ve completely blocked out the natural light from the windows so that the light is constant. They’re actually French doors, not windows, but I couldn’t put in as many panels as there really are, because I wanted people to be able to see details on the images, like the eyeballs.
AMc: Did you know your models in advance?
MB: Some, yes. I cast the older gentleman through a casting company though. I suppose people I knew didn’t quite have the right face. I do have people who ask me all the time to be in my pictures.
AMc: Did you have specific characters and looks in mind?
MB: I knew the age I wanted and the amount of wrinkles I wanted on the face, especially for the father figure, George III. I wanted to put him in because of his disapproval. It’s harder to get men of that age to come and pose for a picture, though. They’re a bit more self-conscious, maybe.
And then I wanted the girl, George IV’s daughter, who died in childbirth at 21. The other two women are a bit more vague: I couldn’t work out whether they would be his mistresses or just people pushing gossip around the court. I think I’ll let people make their own minds up on that one. The guy at the back might be one of the men who made all the satirical cartoons because I can’t help but think they must have played a part in George IV’s state of mind.
AMc: You’ve spoken about your desire for Peepers to turn the gaze of the visitor back on itself and make people feel scrutinised. Is this partly an aesthetic idea or does it entirely have to do with the history of the pavilion and George IV?
MB: It’s both. You see people wandering around so vacantly sometimes. But also, people are so obsessed with staring at rich and famous people, celebrities. I find it bizarre. But what fascinates me most, as I’ve said, is that George IV initially so wanted to be looked upon, but later didn’t want to be seen at all, which I guess was the result of having so many eyes bearing down on him. I want to recreate that feeling here. I want it to be a little oppressive.
AMc: Where did the title Peepers come from?
MB: That was just a working title and then I couldn’t think of anything else and it stuck. Sometimes I have fun with my titles, but I found this one a little tricky. I felt if I called it anything else, it suddenly got very serious.
AMc: You were a student in Brighton [Broadhead completed a BA in 3D design at the University of Brighton]. Were you familiar with the pavilion from then?
MB: Yes, although I didn’t come a lot. We came as a group at the beginning of my course. There’s quite a big gap between then and now, though, so some parts felt new to me again.
AMc: You’re trained in wood, metal, ceramic and plastics, with an MA in gold- and silversmithing and jewellery. When did you start to be such a prolific photographer?
MB: It’s only recently that photography seems to have become something I can’t shake off. I was making jewellery and concentrating on objects, and I’d been doing that for quite a long time and was very happy in that world. But then, I suppose, at one point, about halfway through my master’s degree, it occurred to me that no one was going to see these objects. I’d made them, but they were very obscure, a bit niche really, not generally very wearable. They were always made with an idea in mind rather than as decoration or adornment. They were always concept-led pieces. So it started essentially because I realised that, unless I made some rather nice pictures of these objects, no one was going to see them. I started to build up narratives around an object; I’d make the jewellery and then construct the worlds for it to exist in. I was looking at William Hogarth for another project and it occurred to me that jewellery can actually be a massive part of the images, it can be quite poignant, and sometimes the entire narrative of a painting can hang around a piece of jewellery. So that was how I decided to conclude my MA. I made my jewellery and then built these constructed worlds around it. In the end, I was wondering if I could just make jewellery that would work for the camera and not to be worn. I had done A-level photography years ago, but never really figured out how it fitted in. In a way, it was the first time I could be really playful – almost more playful than I could be with my jewellery. Since I hadn’t really studied it or done a degree in it [photography], I wasn’t held back by anybody’s work or what had gone before. I felt able just to plough on ahead, even if it offended people.
AMc: Do you still make jewellery now?
MB: Yeah, bits. I still have a jewellery bench at the studio and if I need to construct something, I will. I’ve got ideas brewing. I still think in that way. It’s still there. It’s just that people have stopped asking for the jewellery and they’ve carried on asking for the images.
AMc: You’ve mentioned Hogarth, already, and I know a lot of your photography projects make reference to the past, be it through contemporary reworkings of past paintings, as with your series Broadhead’s Women 2014, inspired by the paintings of Vermeer, or, as in this case, through the use of period costume and location. Where does your inspiration usually come from?
MB: It’s a mixture. A lot of the girls in Vermeer’s paintings have a piece of jewellery on them, so a lot of those works were started by the piece of jewellery – by finding images that had jewellery that was central to the narrative of the painting. And then, through researching, I was sucked into a world and started to look at paintings in a different way, in a new context, wondering, “Well, what would be happening in that scenario if it was today?” or “How could that be translated?” I wrote my dissertation on frauds and art forgers, so, in a way, when I started all this, it was all part of it. I was thinking along those lines. I was quite happy to be fraudulent. It’s slightly shifted now, but it was all quite sneaky then. You know, what’s an illusion, what’s not? With some of my paintings, from a distance, if you just take a squinty look, you might think they’re a reproduction of the original. And I quite like that.
AMc: How important is it to you to be faithful to the original? I know you often contemporise the works by adding in objects …
MB: I think, as viewers, people are quite satisfied when you manage to get something to work. I’m amazed at how many people want to play spot the difference. Then there are lots of people who just recognise the image and can’t quite place it. In a way, you’re tapping into an existing authority that has already been validated. But now people are buying my prints in their own right, which is nice.
AMc: What are you working on next?
MB: Well, I’ve got loads of LEDs now, so I might reuse them in a different way. There will definitely be a few more light boxes, I reckon, but I’m not sure in what world or context just yet.
I do have other things on the go, though. I’ve got a show I did with a historian and a fashion designer, which will be showing in March 2015 in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Then I’m in talks with people about summer projects, and I’ll probably have another solo show at the end of the year. It’s been a good few years.
AMc: Are you happy with the direction it’s all going in?
MB: I love it, really. I feel quite lucky. The fact that I’m working and being asked to do things means that I’ve been able to call it a full-time career. It is my job. I’m one of the lucky ones.